Official disclaimers department: Richard Pittman, music director of the New England Philharmonic, disclaimed any causal nexus between the title of NE Phil’s opening concert of the season, “Atmospherics,” which took place on October 27th at BU’s Tsai Performance Center, and the heavy dose of atmospherics bearing down on Boston for the next few days. The fact that one piece on the program depicted a storm, another depicted high seas, and yet another derived its movement titles from Weather Channel headlines was, well, just a not-wholly-happy coincidence.
Be this as it may, the program opened with the premiere of the Symphony #4 by NE Phil’s composer in residence David Rakowski, who teaches at Brandeis and has for decades successfully negotiated the border zone between the groves of academe and the badlands of zaniness. He writes well and tightly composed pieces with an air of madcap tomfoolery, and the Fourth Symphony illustrates the point. The movement titles, “Waning Crescent,” “Current Conditions,” “Ice to Rain,” and “Double Shot” have nothing to do with the music, but were whimsically chosen from topic headings on the Weather Channel’s home page. The work started as one five-minute children’s piece in which Rakowski “hid” the motto motif of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in a jazzy outer wrapper based on the motto’s rhythmic and intervallic substance (this is the movement called “Current Conditions”). He later added other movements of similar structure based on well-known works of Bach, Mahler and Mozart (in the completed symphony, these composers are arrayed in alphabetical order, with Beethoven 5 therefore informing the scherzo). On the “serious” side, the musical materials, organized in the Ivesian method of development-first-theme-later, are tightly and imaginatively presented and add up to a wicked-clevah and entertaining whole. In contrast to another famous local composer who has built a significant œuvre of symphonies, Rakowski’s insouciance makes him, to over-simplify a bit, the contra-Harbison. Pittman and his symphonic forces served this piece well with sprightliness and, in the direct and tender slow movement based on music from Mahler’s Second Symphony, affecting pathos. Special kudos to oboist Sandra Ayres in that movement.
The first half of the program ended with Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs, written when the composer was 84 (though not intended as a song cycle, and not in fact even his last completed songs). The texts are three poems by Hermann Hesse, better known for his novels, and one by Joseph von Eichendorff. The tone is, as they say, autumnal (why don’t they ever say hibernal?) and reflective, with death the implicit and sometimes explicit trajectory. Strauss’s style here reverts to the lavish lushness of his earlier tone poems rather than the sparer sound of his other late works, finally quoting from Death and Transfiguration in the long orchestral coda to the final number, Eichendorff’s “At Sunset.” The soloist, soprano Sarah Pelletier, matched Strauss’s opulent sliding harmonies with a plummy intensity that insinuated more than it dominated. Her phrasing was intelligent, conveying meaning through subtle nuance, but the intelligibility of her actual words suffered from too many instances of coverage by the orchestra. Pittman should have attended better to the balance of forces in light of Pelletier’s particular approach. While the performance by the orchestra was skillful—we commend the solos by concertmaster Danielle Maddon and horn John Kessen, the latter in music perhaps intended as a filial kiss to Strauss’s father, the eminent hornist Franz Strauss—it was not exactly subtle, and deprived the overall effect of the piece of what might have been transcendent power.
The second half opening again played to Pittman’s strength as an interpreter of contemporary music, in Thea Musgrave’s Rainbow, written in 1990 for the opening of the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow. Musgrave, born in Edinburgh (and now herself 84) but resident in the US for over 30 years, bestowed on the Glaswegians a bit of stormy weather, a brief spell of sunshine followed by an extended tempest, capped by the work’s eponymous rainbow and, at last, the return of the A major sun. Musgrave is well-known as a musical pictorialist, and Pittman and the orchestra stressed her colorific effects, with the clearing and rainbow especially luminescent. Although the musical language is obviously different, one can’t help recalling Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony here; at the same time, there is musical linkage—perhaps even a hat-tip quotation—from Debussy. Musgrave’s scoring gave greater scope to the NE Phil’s brass section than anything else on the program, and it rose admirably to the occasion.
The program finale was Debussy’s La Mer, which is now so familiar that one has to strain to imagine the audacity it displayed to its first audiences in 1905. The un-credited note in the NE Phil’s program book exaggerates a bit when it speaks of the work’s formlessness—there are obviously key motives that Debussy develops in ways not that far from what many of his contemporaries were doing—but Debussy was, in his own way as Strauss was in his, intensifying the palette which allows musical notes to speak to the eyes as well as the ears. It was this precision that led Satie to his famous joke that, in the first movement, entitled “Dawn to Noon on the Sea,” he especially liked the section between ten-thirty and a quarter to eleven.
Pittman’s and the orchestra’s performance had strengths and weaknesses. A work like this that is not only generally familiar but that has been brilliantly associated with the BSO calls for imagination and panache in execution from anyone else. Pittman contributed an intriguing clarity in color, texture and pacing, piercing the fog of sound that often accompanies performances of this work. We greatly appreciated the frolicsome interplay of the waves in the second movement. On the other hand, this clarity came at the expense of rhythmic suppleness, brio, and power in the climaxes, with a few intonationally doubtful moments contributing to a sense of dullness.